Thursday 24 February 2011

Thoughts on setting up a Skeptics in the Pub.

A Blogpost by Chris Richardson

I attended QEDcon on the weekend of 5th/6th February 2011 and amongst the great and the good I was most impressed with the coming together of grass roots skeptics in particular the presentation of the Nightingale Collaboration by Alan Henness and a workshop hosted by Simon Perry (Leicester SitP) and Michael Marshall (Merseyside SitP) on how to set up a Skeptics in the Pub group.

The latter was a heartening affair for two reasons. Firstly the room was packed, and secondly when the question was asked “Who's thinking of setting up a SitP?” about a dozen hands went up. There was no formal presentation per se, just an hour long discussion of various ways and means to decide on venues, promote SitPs, where to get speakers etc. It seemed to go by so quickly but many valuable ideas were shared. There are noises on twitter as I write regarding
a wiki page as a central point of information and I hope people will feed this and other information into it.

First up – there is no right way to set up a Skeptics in the Pub and this is not a tutorial. There are many models, many ways, many different approaches. Some of the most successful SitPs around rose from months of informal socials without speakers, getting like minded people to form a core community from which the 'traditional' SitP model emerged. People are still forming SitPs in this fashion and all power to them. I hope those that do will feed their experience into the wiki. This is my experience of the setting up of Cheltenham.

I love the idea of SitP. For someone like me what's not to like? Nerds and beer will cut it every time. I decided to see how many were out there, especially in the UK and Eire and therefore among other things set up various Twitter searches to find them. It also found people tentatively tweeting out, wondering whether there may be anyone interested in setting one up. Being the way I am, an instant retweet is pretty much a no-brainer. Over the last few months it has found about 6 'new' shoutouts for interest which I'm happy to say have all borne fruit in one way or another. One of these was in Gloucestershire which was not too far from me to travel but with little local knowledge I offered to do what I could from (relatively) afar. I also had made a friend on Twitter who actually was local so sent on the information. So 5 people met, decided to go for it, and as one was a long standing speaker and podcaster it was obvious who would give the first talk.

They then chose a date, 30th November. All fine and dandy. Trouble was this was the 12th. Deep breaths. Could it be done? Well, on reflection I would definitely want much more time, but hey-ho, needs must when the devil drives. So what did we do? Two of us (myself and @Jin_Shei) set up our own little interconnected network and then made a lot (and I mean a lot) of noise.

Twitter is a peculiar beast. If a SitP tweets out a meeting it's unlikely to get more than 3 or 4 retweets from other SitPs, if that. In this respect putting “Please RT” on the end of it wouldn't work. I suspect this is likely to be for a variety of reasons. Long standing SitP's don't particularly need to do this because they have a decent core of followers and why should followers of a SitP which is geographically far away be interested? There is also a timeline problem in that if it isn't spotted immediately there's a good chance it will disappear off the bottom. There are a few people who, like me, monitor #SitP searches, but they are few and far between and wouldn't make sufficient noise for Cheltenham's purposes.

So we asked. Nicely (and also said thank you - it's the way I was brought up). The rationale was this. Every SitP is, ipso facto, pro-SitP and will have little reason to not retweet a specific request. Each has hundreds of followers supportive of SitP. They in turn have hundreds of followers and some of them might live near Cheltenham and might like the idea of SitP. The hope was they would tip them the wink. There is little geography on the net and with a network of organisations who are supportive of the same aims as yourself it seemed sensible to use it.

The same rationale holds for SitP speakers. Their followers can be counted in the thousands many of whom would like the idea. The worry is, should you be bothering them? Well, these people travel the length and breadth of the country to give their talks to a roomful of nerds for no more than their train fare and, if necessary, a hotel room. I think it can be safely assumed they are also going to support you too. There are also many non-speaker pro-SitPers out there who will just be glad to find there's another member of the SitP family.

Does this approach work? Well, a few weeks ago my SitP search threw up a result from Utrecht in the Netherlands. I retweeted it (as I said it's one of my 'things'). Within 10 minutes one of my followers pointed 3 other people to it. Some were resident in this country or frequent visitors, some weren't. Did this information carry on back to the country of origin too? I hope so.

So what did we tweet? The basic information is all well and good, but people want links, specifically links to something they can sign up to (unless they're happy to just follow you on Twitter which is just another way of “signing up”). They can then forget about it and leave it to you to remind them when the next event is. We were helped by the fact that we tweeted a request first (something on the lines of “Hi, new SitP setting up. Would you mind giving us a plug? Text follows...”. It's surprising how much extra you can get on a tweet in the space it would have taken to say the relatively useless “Please RT”.

The main sites we used were Facebook, Twitter itself and the website run by Simon Perry which enables SitPs to have their own web page at very little effort and no cost. It also allows them to have an email mailing list – yet another option for people to sign up to - and links to all of the other SitPs who use it. Some people love Facebook, some hate it and won't use it, but it was thought best to give the option. There are other pages which would help a new SitP to connect with other local and like minded individuals and organisations such as Meetup which I'm sure someone else could describe much better than I could.

The important thing was that each and every site had a direct link to the others and ultimately back to a dedicated email address. The idea was that someone might find a SitP web page but actually want to follow a Twitter account or sign up to a Facebook page etc..

Posters designed by a very helpful and talented skeptic from another area were also put up in en eclectic range of places. At that stage initial enquiries to the local press and radio drew a blank, but we have since had an enthusiastic interview on Radio Gloucester with a possible follow-up.

So after about 40 hours of work including 58 targeted tweets (times 3 due to pleases and thank-yous), a decent amount of networking and the wonderful support and dozens of retweets from many other SitPers, 31 people turned up at the venue, a great time was had by all and it was clear that a sizeable core of them wanted a SitP as much as we did. Despite not even having a December meeting as we meet on the last Tuesday of the month, that number almost doubled for the second event in January. It looks like Cheltenham SitP is here to stay (and now requires a bigger venue).

Were we lucky? Probably. Were we daft? Maybe. Did we spam people? No complaints so far. Could it be done again? Definitely, but preferably with a lot (at least 3 times) more time.

So, if you've read this far and you don't have a local SitP, what are you waiting for?

A full list of SitPs in the UK and Eire can be found here, with a list of resources for starting your own Skeptics in the Pub.
Chris Richardson (@christheneck) - Skeptic, atheist, musician, cook, gardener and sci-fi and comedy nerd who lives in Staffordshire.  He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub and tweets for @Brum_Skeptics & @Chelt_SitP.

This site has a database of speakers and contact details:


Kylie Sturgess said...

Oh! Thanks for the link to my podcast! :)

Anonymous said...

IT was worth it though, all so worth it. I followed the campaign with mounting alarm - I had been organising events in Cheltenham, and knew how low turn out could be, even to say Wiseman or Blackmore in the past - then again you could get 120. It varied so much with publicity, and in my day that meant press and posters and at worst flyers. The Facebook page seemed empty - the tweets came thick and fast, and were fun and interesting. And when I arrived I was knocked off my feet - you and Jin Shei had pulled off miracles, and it's just kept growing. I have realised that Facebook "I will attend" is not reliable, but the turn out has been great every time, and the bigger venue says it ll. I'd like to thank both of you for all your hard work, and for showing me how good Twitter can be for marketing events.

CJ x

@christheneck said...

Thanks for that CJ, just spotted your comment.

We worried a bit ourselves, but the twitter following was much higher. I'd be interested to know from others how their FB attendance matches their actual attendance. The experience I had previously suggested that you could add half as much again to the FB count, at the very least, and that's for an organisation which is up and running.

I suspect that, for a new venture, people would be reticent to back a possible "loser" by publicly hitting the FB attend button.

@christheneck said...


No worries. More linkylove to follow shortly. I'll tip you the wink.